- By Arianna Auber American-Statesman Staff
Cider is on the cusp of a proper revival.
Once the everyday drink of colonial America — which established whole orchards of apples suitable for making the fermented alcoholic beverage — cider didn’t take off in the years following Prohibition in the same way beer, wine and spirits did.
That’s begun to change thanks in large part to cider house owners like Wes Mickel, who opened the Austin area’s first cidery, Argus, in 2010 and now has a more knowledgeable customer base that “no longer thinks our stuff is wine,” he says. A recently passed federal law called the CIDER Act will also contribute to overall growth by giving cider makers more leeway in the kinds of cider they produce.
Part of that latitude extends to another fruit. Under the CIDER Act, pears made into alcoholic juice (a beverage known as a perry) are now classified in the same lower-taxed category as hard apple ciders. (All alcoholic products are taxed at various rates by the government.)
Mickel has already taken advantage of the law by releasing the latest Argus product in bottles in the past month: Vinho Pearde, a medium-dry perry made from 100 percent pear juice. The latest in the Fermentables line, the drink is remarkable because it was originally inspired by a young Portuguese wine but was lagered, like a beer, to achieve those fresh fruit characteristics present in the wine.
The result is something all its own. Pears naturally have extra residual sugar, so Vinho Pearde is slightly sweet but balanced with a crisp citric bite and back-end bubbles. Its easy-drinking quality has earned Mickel early praise.
“We’re finally to a point now where we’ve got a grasp of what our consumer base wants. Vinho Pearde speaks exactly to that,” he says. “It’s not dry as a bone, it’s very fruit-expressive, and it’s reminiscent of a beer and a beer style that people really like, so especially those drinkers that don’t normally go to cider, this is a great transition cider for them.”
Although lagering the perry is new for Mickel, making a perry in general is not. The Fermentables line launched in early 2015 with Ginger Perry, a ginger ale-like mixture of ginger and pear, and Ciderkin, an easy-drinking historical cider made from reconstituted apple pomace, as a way to reach more people. Both are available year-round in six-pack cans.
To ensure that availability, Argus Fermentables uses fruit from reliable orchards in the Pacific Northwest. Despite Mickel’s desire to use apples from Texas, the fruit trees here are in just as precarious a position as our vineyards, neither of which can handle the state’s wild-card weather very well.
But Mickel, who co-owns the cider house with his brother and Argus’ general manager, Jeff Mickel, can’t imagine making alcoholic beverages from anything other than fruit. In addition to apples and pears, he’s also experimented with peaches and pineapples — with each product containing 100 percent of their respective fruit.
He decided to try his hand at making a sour peach wine after noticing that one of his apple producers, pomologist John Aselage of Arkansas’ A&A Orchards, also grows white peaches. The Peach debuted at the Shelton Brothers Festival (an annual gathering of artisanal beer, cider and mead makers at rotating locations around the U.S.) to experienced drinkers who were nonetheless “blown away by the idea that it’s just 100 percent peaches,” Mickel said.
Argus will make the Peach in greater quantities this year. But there’s no firm plan on when Tepache, a sparkling pineapple wine at once savory, tart and spicy, might return. That one proved to be a far more polarizing release in 2014 because of its peculiar flavor profile, with many people expecting the sweetness of a pineapple cider like the sort Austin Eastciders — the largest cidery in town — now makes.
“We lovingly refer to that as the art album of our catalogue — you know, the one the critics universally panned that a handful of our followers still love,” Jeff Mickel jokes of the Tepache.
His brother, however, isn’t deterred.
Wes Mickel developed a love for cider and dry fruit wines like the Tepache years before while working in the restaurant industry, when he would “just sort of try everything, and come to realize that cider does not have to be sweet. To me, that was a huge eye-opener.” He wants to extend his knowledge of cider styles like Spanish sidra, which are characterized by a funky barnyard-like quality, to Argus’ ardent fans, while cultivating new ones, too, through the Fermentables program.
Argus Cidery’s cans are now in 20 states, and the cider house actually has a very small footprint in Texas, an intentional business decision the brothers made in the hopes that Argus will benefit when the cider industry finally experiences the explosive growth that craft beer has been enjoying.
It’s nearly there, but “cider is still years behind beer,” Jeff Mickel says.
In the meantime, Wes Mickel plans to continue making ciders by expanding the kinds of techniques and approaches used — like lagering, rarely employed in cider production — and by working with passionate pomologists like Aselage to cultivate rare heirloom apple varieties. Mickel likes to fly to Arkansas to learn from the grower because he finds the natural production of apples to be fascinating.
“The fruit tree blossoms in the spring, followed by the little buds and the thinning. Just the whole cycle of it is a beautiful process,” Mickel says. “Same with how grapes are grown. So if I give myself a vineyard and an orchard and set up a hammock, I’ll be fine.”
Asked if growing his own fruit is his ultimate goal for Argus Cidery, he shakes his head.
“The only goals I have in life are just to keep the doors open,” he says. “I’m trying to be realistic about how hard this is still. It’s been a rough seven years. It’s been a lot of learning. That’s all I can hope for, to stay open another seven years.”